Virago, £20

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, By Hannah Rothschild

A tantalising portrait of a British society beauty who became the ‘crazy friend’ of Thelonious Monk

One of the most engaging jazz books of recent years was Three Wishes, a collection of after-hours snapshots of musicians taken by the bebop-obsessed Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, an aristocratic Brit who became an unlikely muse in New York's jazz clubs. Some of the photos are slightly out-of-focus, some smudged or damaged, yet their informality gives a rare glimpse of life away from the bandstand. Alongside are responses to the Baroness's question: "If you were given three wishes, to be instantly granted, what would they be?" .

The responses run all the way from the mystical to the downright earthy. Miles Davis's only answer is "To be white!" Pianist Sonny Clark bluntly asks for "all the bitches in the world", while Nica's soul-mate, the enigmatic Thelonious Monk, concludes with a typically gnomic request: "To have a crazy friend like you!"

A former society beauty who died in 1988, the Baroness is an ageing, almost ghostly presence in those pages. She remains an elusive figure, too, in this intriguing biography, a detective story of sorts pieced together by her great-niece, the documentary film-maker Hannah Rothschild. Ultimately, some critical questions are left unanswered. Was Nica an upper-class groupie, as some of her enemies contended? Was she Monk's lover, or a disinterested lover of music? Was she a drug user, or did she simply help Monk cope with mental instability aggravated by his own use of narcotics?

Even if she does not supply definitive answers, Rothschild sketches a tantalising portrait of an heiress who turned her back on a cloistered life in Europe and pursued an often chaotic, nocturnal existence on the other side of the Atlantic. Rothschild's' narrative cleverly shifts focus, weaving a brisk account of the dynasty's ascent from the Frankfurt ghetto and her own attempts to come to terms with family tradition.

Born in 1913, Nica was named after a tiny but beautiful moth. After marriage to a mining expert-cum-diplomat, Baron Jules de Koenigwarter, she had five children, before the relationship soured. In the aftermath of the Second World War , she cast off her responsibilities and embarked on a new life in Manhattan's jazz demi-monde.

Rothschild captures the era well, despite a few slips. It's something of a stretch, surely, to describe Miles Davis as "Monk's protégé", and there's a curious reference to the apolitical Monk's lack of interest in joining the "Brothers of Islam" – presumably a reference to the Nation of Islam.

After falling under the spell of Monk's classic ballad "Round Midnight", she tracked down the reclusive pianist, eventually assuming a curious role of consort, roadie and nurse alongside his long-suffering wife, Nellie. As a well-to-do white woman in a black world, she attracted suspicion from both sides. The police seldom missed an opportunity to make her life difficult, and after the drug-ravaged Charlie Parker died at her apartment in the Stanhope Hotel, she attracted no end of spiteful newspaper gossip.

By the time she passed away in 1988, Nica was something of an institution. Even so, there's no escaping the melancholy flavour of her final decade-and-a-half with Monk, who declined into a reclusive, trance-like state before his own death in 1982. Surrounded by her hundreds of cats in a home known as "Catville", Nica continued to frequent favourite haunts in her fur coat and pearls. The music she loved had lost much of its freshness by then, but her life continued as if the Fifties were still in full swing.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride